Researchers Condemn He Jiankui’s Genetic Editing of Unborn Twin Girls

The scientific community reacted very strongly following a YouTube video posted by Dr. He Jiankui from the Southern University of Science and Technology (or SUSTech) in China, where he announced creating the first genetically edited babies.  In a recent issue of PLOS Biology, two researchers named Hui Yang and Haoyi Wang openly criticized Jiankui’s work claiming it as unethical and unnecessary in relation to what Jiankui was trying to accomplish.  Though China “outlaws human cloning,” according to the Daily Mail newspaper, it doesn’t outlaw gene editing.  So back in 2017, Jiankui brought eight couples into an experiment he was conducting to eliminate the gene CCR5 (which can cause HIV) from the couples’ future children.

The males in each couple were HIV-positive, allowing Jiankui to use CRISPR-Cas9 to genetically edit the embryos to supposedly prevent them from contracting HIV too. Though two pregnancies occurred during the experiment, only twin girls named Nana and Lulu were genetically edited in embryo form. Yang and Wang claim this was unnecessary as the babies’ infection to HIV “could have been avoided during conception by using already well established assisted-reproduction technologies”.

They also note Jiankui didn’t present long-term plans to monitor the twins after their birth to see the lasting changes of their edited genes.  Following Jiankui’s mysterious disappearance after showing up at the Second International Summit on Human Genome Editing in Hong Kong that occurred in November 2018, he’s been fired from SUSTech and is currently “under investigation from Chinese authorities” the Daily Mail says.

About CCR5

 Also known as C-C chemokine receptor type 5, it’s a protein that rests on white blood cells which normally helps run the immune system by receiving Chemokines that alert immune system cells to where an infection lies and/or control moving cells that are involved in tissue maintenance/development.  However, it can allow HIV to infect cells.  Now even though “naturally-occurring mutations in CCR5 have been associated with higher levels of resistance to infection specifically in European populations, these do not block all strains of HIV”, according to the Daily Mail.

 About HIV

Being Human Immunodeficiency Viruses, there are two types of this affliction known as HIV-1 and HIV-2. Transmitted sexually, they infect immune system cells and weaken the body to the point where AIDS (Acquired Immunodeficiency Syndrome) can develop.  They also be inherited by children during their conception if one of the parents is HIV-positive.  According to Jiankui himself, “These infections are a big problem in China”.

 About CRISPR-Cas9

 An abbreviation for Clustered Regularly Interspaced Short Palindromic Repeats, CRISPR is a DNA sequence type that is usually found in bacteria and/or archaeas.  When combined with the enzyme Cas9, or CRISPR-associated protein 9, it can be used to “Operate on DNA to supply a needed gene or disable one that’s causing problems” says the Daily Mail. Though it’s been recently used to treat diseases found in adults, it was never used to alter embryos until now.